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Living Feminist Theory at Grinnell: Navigating the “trigger warning” wars

This week, we explore the ongoing discussion about “trigger warnings,” drawn from social media and some strands of feminist activism. Indeed, many colleges and universities are considering requiring “trigger warnings” on course syllabi. [At Grinnell, there is no college-wide conversation regarding trigger warnings on syllabi, however, a number of faculty and students have considered this option.] Given [this discussion], we want to start a conversation about the possible consequences of such a policy for feminist and queer politics in the classroom. Queer theorist Judith/Jack Halberstam has argued that “trigger warning” discourse constitutes the emergence “of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.”

IAN: I think Halberstam’s point is that before we begin to incorporate “trigger warnings,” we need to historicize their emergence within what is arguably the most economically conservative time since the end of the nineteenth century.

ANNA: Right, and he’s also identifying a major problem with any discourse that creates hierarchies of oppression, or in this case, woundedness. And it becomes personalized. So rather than the feminist adage “the personal is political,” it becomes, “the political is personal.”

IAN: I think it means that feminism becomes the performance of a certain identity of being a person who is more socially conscious or politically correct than others because they were able to identify some content as triggering.

ANNA: Exactly. And which syllabi are going to have “trigger warnings?” I would argue that the professors most impacted by such a policy would be those teaching feminist, queer and critical race studies, in the humanities and social sciences. So then we’re looking at a potential infringement of academic freedom, and even more specifically, the policing of feminist classrooms.

IAN: Although these disciplines are more likely to engage with potentially traumatizing topics, such as sexual or racialized violence, “there is no mechanism, in the discourse of ‘triggering,’ for distinguishing material that is oppositional or critical in its representation of traumatizing experience from that which is sensationalistic or gratuitous” (Halberstam 2014).

ANNA: Then it becomes difficult for students to critically engage with course materials that address these upsetting, or “triggering,” themes. It shuts down what could be a very meaningful conversation about how such violence is represented by reducing all representations of violence to their content, rather than the question of their form, or HOW meaning is constructed and negotiated by readers.

IAN: Yes. And engaging with traumatic material has actually enabled me to move beyond an understanding of trauma as something that’s just an individual experience, as the discourse of “trigger warnings” holds it. What do you think?

ANNA: I certainly agree that “trigger warnings” can preclude a potentially transformative personal and political experience. However, I say this with some degree of ambivalence, as I understand the realities of PTSD attacks and sometimes have wished for “trigger warnings” before engaging with certain texts or performances. And I know that many other students feel similarly. But I also know that trauma is much more complex than the discourse of “trigger warnings” suggests. For example, “claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or merely represents the theme of the original painful experience” (Halberstam 2014).

IAN: What retraumatizes us is often something we can’t predict in advance because trauma is circular, not linear.

ANNA: Right, so reducing it to a simple cause and effect model, as in—“I see a representation of violence that’s familiar to me, so it upsets me”—seems to negate the complex, largely unconscious processes that are constitutive of trauma.

IAN: I see how “trigger warnings” are often beneficial for those with PTSD. But what concerns me is how “trigger warnings,” if incorporated into academic institutional policies, may displace institutional shortcomings such as the high number of sexual assaults and inadequate mental health resources onto individual faculty members.

ANNA: Yes, because under such a policy, faculty members who fail to put appropriate “trigger warnings” onto their syllabi could be charged with a Title IX violation. This is rather ironic, considering that many of the faculty who would be susceptible are those who are most committed to supporting students dealing with trauma. What’s even more troubling, which you just suggested, is that a “trigger warning” policy suggests that Grinnell has addressed, or is adequately addressing, its larger Title IX enforcement issues. Given the current student dissatisfaction with Title IX policies at Grinnell, this implication seems rather dangerous.

Editor’s note: To read the original article by Halberstam, see “You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma.”

A previous version of this column implied that a campus-wide discussion of trigger warnings existed at Grinnell, when in reality the issue is being addressed by individual faculty members and students, rather than at an institutional level.

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  • O

    Olivia QueathemMar 11, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    It is important for students at this school to be challenged, but not re-traumatized. Education should sometimes make us uncomfortable, but students should not be in unnecessary pain. This is not about avoiding anything. This is about fostering open communication between students and faculty to allow people to work through difficult material in a productive, safe way.

  • A

    AlumMar 5, 2015 at 3:20 am

    There’s no scientific evidence that trigger warnings reduce PTSD. In fact, trigger warnings may do the opposite, priming PTSD where none would have occurred otherwise. We’ll have to wait for more science on the subject. Moreover, an essential process to living with trauma is, basically enough, learning to live with trauma. Successful treatment helps survivors live, not avoid, life.

  • O

    Olivia QueathemFeb 16, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    There are a few problems here. 1.) Yes, people in the humanities and social sciences will be disproportionately affected. We can’t do anything about that. This isn’t some arbitrary imposition we want to force on faculty; this is about making sure that classes can work through difficult subject matter without some student having a panic attack in the middle of class. 2.) How could faculty members be charged with a Title IX violation? Putting trigger warnings on syllabi would not be mandatory. I repeat: It would not be mandatory. Highly recommended, but not mandatory. No punishment for not doing it. It seems to me that this article was written without first consulting the actual policy that has been proposed. 3.) The bottom line is, this is about helping people feel safe. Frankly, I don’t really care if it makes more trouble for some people. Helping people feel (and *be*) safe is worth it.